The 18th of April 1983, a GCM van, loaded with 2006 pounds of explosives, hit the US Embassy in Beirut. The palace was gutted, and 63 people died in the attack. On the 22nd of May 2017, a suicide bomber killed 23 people and injured 250 during a concert in the Manchester Arena. From 1983 to 2017, hundreds of bombers have killed themselves in the name of Allah; from Chechnya to Iraq, from Lebanon to Afghanistan, from Saudi Arabia to Israel and Western Europe.
Instinctively, we think to those killings as act of fanaticism but if we analyse it deeper, beneath the shallow, we might discover a more complex interaction between religious ethics, social conditioning, political gamble and military tactics.
In the West, following a tradition that began with the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle and then Christian patristic philosophy, we observe a clear distinction between murder and suicide. However, it is also proper to say that in Islam no sura (chapters) of the Qur’an admits suicide as a legitimate act. So where does religious justification come from for an action that will certainly lead to a self-induced death? The acceptance of this practice derives from an expedient that on a formal level turns suicide (which in any case remains the substantial act and therefore prohibited) into a testimony of faith. In the Qur’an, in the sura “al-Fatiha”, we read: “… those who had martyrdom, bearing witness to the faith, [are] the Devotees“. But the practice of martyrdom, from the Greek “witness” and that in Arabic is translated with shahid, does not imply suicide, it has nothing to do with it. Although in fact the martyrdom in war, and the reward for it, are foreseen within the Qur’an (sura IV “an-Nisa”: “… therefore they fight on the path of Allah, those who trade earthly life with the other. To those who fight for the cause of Allah, whether killed or victorious, we will soon give immense reward“), it is a testimony of the faith in combat, which as such can lead to death.
The shahid of the Qur’an does not seek death as a sacrifice but accepts it as an inevitable consequence of the struggle that he puts in place for the defence of the lands of Islam and of his faith. The martyrs’ tradition is therefore an important element in Muslim ethics, but it too appears to be highly diversified within the numerous Islamic traditions. Shiite Islam made it a pillar of its confession, and Iran of the Ayatollahs made it a tradition.
The Shiite minority has invested an almost sacral value in an altogether marginal event in Muslim history, that of the Battle of Kerbala in 680 AD. About seventy fighters were killed along with their leader al-Husayn, rebel Caliph of Ali’s party (those who want the succession of the Prophet to be reserved solely to his kinsmen), who since then in the cult of the Twelver Shiites (those who believe in the Imamate of the Twelve Imams) is called Sayyd al-shuhada or the Lord of the Martyrs. One of the most important festivals for Shiite Islam is precisely the celebration of Ashura in which the death of the caliph is commemorated. Nevertheless, al-Husayn also died as a martyr killed in combat, never committing suicide. When did the martyrs’ cult go beyond the prohibition of suicide and make the personal sacrifice acceptable?
This fundamental transition took place in two successive moments that marked a change both doctrinal and strategic. The first was the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. During this bloody conflict the Ayatollahs, who had just come to power, called for martyrdom armies of teenagers who had the task of slowing down the advance of Iraqi armoured vehicles and Saddam’s artillery by launching themselves against them; the T-72 served no purpose against an army of suicides. The cemetery of Behest-e Zahra, south of Tehran, in the Nineties extended over an area of almost forty square kilometres with tombs arranged next to each other in endless rows. Here the cult of the martyrs’ death was glorified, and the horror of this useless slaughter made bearable by a sort of compensatory welfare state that helped the families of those who sacrificed themselves. Psychologically, it induced a sort of public pride for the sacrifice and the regime granted concrete help (study funding, medical care) for the close relatives of the martyr.
Once suicide became acceptable as an act of martyrdom, it was then exported to Lebanon in 1982, a country which became the incubator of a new way of waging war. The use of suicide bombers as we know them today is in fact the result of a deeper strategic elaboration produced by Hezbollah, the Shiite armed wing of Iran against Israel, which has created its own “smart bombs”. Suicide as an act of killing oneself was then transformed into an action of war when the conception of the human body, and therefore of life, becomes instrumental to the completion of the attack. In other words, I am not taking my life, but I am using it to fight, witnessing my faith in Allah.
This false theoretical and doctrinal approach thus allowed us to bypass the limit imposed by the prohibition of suicide by filling the above mentioned ethical-religious justifications with the mentality of the shahid on duty.
Having overcome the moral obstacle, the reflection of Hezbollah and the terrorism of al-Qa’ida and the groups connected to it, it succeeded in creating the ultimate weapon. In fact, Israel owns the F-16 but Hezbollah managed to secure its “smart bomb“, an instrument capable of reaching up to an embassy, a restaurant, a coach, a subway, a hotel, a theatre and to cause the maximum number of victims possible in the face of almost insignificant costs. And the effects of this weapon are devastating even militarily since they crush the will to fight, imposing the fear of being hit at any moment.
Despite Israel claiming the opposite, Hezbollah’s strategy of the hidden war was able to push back one of the strongest armies in the West, forcing it to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000. In the same way, in the Qaedist reflection of Ayman al-Zawahiri, contained in the pages of his book “Knights under the banner of the Prophet”, the wave of attacks that in the years between 1996 and 1999 hit Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya , Bosnia, Algeria, Pakistan, was not only the September 11th general rehearsal, but also an instrument of psychological pressure aimed at the recruitment of new martyrs.
Obviously the shahid phenomenon is not homogeneous and, from its birth on the Iranian-Iraqi border and from its development in Lebanon, it has assumed remarkable facets both in the modalities and in the personalities involved. Much of the Taliban, Chechen and Palestinian bombers who blew themselves up did not have a high degree of religious education and came mainly from the most disadvantaged classes of their respective societies. However, this does not mean that there is an equation that results in an identity between poverty and terrorism; far from it. The motivational drive for martyrdom is often given not so much by socio-environmental conditions but rather by historical-political conditions which are however perceived as influencing the firsts. Looking at Palestine as a seismograph of terrorism, we can see that the bar oscillates positively in periods of political relaxation and negatively in those of disillusionment, in which hopes for a way out of their condition seem to fade. The annihilation of the will and the brainwashing with religious mystifications, are actually a corollary to an action that ultimately seems only a desperate attempt to regain power over the course of one’s life, a test of extreme courage so as not to feel crushed anymore (there are many guerrilla women who have taken up a gun or stuffed themselves with explosives to finally be able to make a free choice about their lives). Religious fundamentalism and misery are not enough reasons to push an individual into a suicide attack; otherwise the spread of kamikazes in historically secular contexts such as the Kurdish PKK or the Tamil Tigers could not be explained. Martyrdom has always been part of human history but in political Islam this religious cult has been distorted to violence in the name of God for other purposes, exploiting the weakness, despair and insecurities of young teenagers and disenchanted adults.